The Top 11 Cars of 2012
Whew! That was fast. Seems like I was just struggling to pick my favorites from 2011 and it’s time to do it again.
As always, my list goes up to 11 since 10 seems so overdone (and allows me to sneak in one more choice). Enthusiast magazines have the performance models covered so I’ve begun focusing on more mainstream models that consumers tend to buy. That hardly means fun is off this list, it just means high performance is not the only priority. I’ve tried to include the major categories such as family sedan, crossovers, budget rides and so on.
Finally, I’m a huge advocate of test-driving at least three vehicles before buying so I’m naming runner-ups. I’ll fully admit it isn’t a perfect science. In some cases the prices and sizes swing wildly. It could be due to the runner up’s excellent value, or that the vehicle is very unique. What I’m trying to do is recognize good vehicles and let you know what I enjoyed this year.
The list is alphabetical, base prices include destination, and if there’s a video review there are clickable links. As always, a price cap of 80K applies (but only one vehicle comes close to that this year).
Leave your comments and complaints about too many Chevys below. As always, your Facebook “likes” and Tweets are greatly appreciated.
Once again, I’ll roll fraternal twins Audi A6 [$50,775] and A7 [$60,125] together as one. The 6 is the traditional sedan with a more spacious back seat. A7 is the super-model sister, with an unexpected practical twist- a hatchback. Both get a swept instrument panel and sporty balanced driving dynamics. Yes, you’ll pay for the A7’s svelte shape, but hey, it just might be worth it for those who enjoy beautiful things.
Both these cars employ easy to use technology such as Google Maps navigation and a wireless hot spot that allows privileged kids in the back seat to surf the net with their MacBook Airs. The driver gets a responsive chassis that fun to drive and passengers don’t get beat up by a harsh suspension.
Options include the BMW 5 Series (because, well, it’s the 5 Series), Lexus GS Series (in my opinion the best handling car in class) and the Chrysler 300 (a full sized sedan with a surprising amount of luxury at a very reasonable price).
Cadillac ATS [$33,990] This one took days to choose between because both this and BMW’s excellent new 3 Series were new this year. I’ll admit that the tiebreaker comes down to Cadillac being the over achiever in its first direct attempt to take on The King. There are three engine choices but wise buyers will go with the turbo motor or the V6 (take the 6 if you can swing the extra cash).
ATS looks great, handles great, and offers up a well-crafted interior. The slow touch response of the Cadillac User Experience (or CUE) will frustrate some but out of the gate it’s world’s better than the original iDrive. In the end, the Cadillac had the elusive “drive-me-harder, drive-me-faster” quality that makes a sport sedan desirable. It doesn’t have the pedigree of the 3 Series but it just may create a new automotive rivalry.
Shoppers should also consider BMW’s 3 Series (epic lineage, refined performance) Audi A4 (overall Audi panache inside and out), and the real sleeper, Volvo’s S60 T5 AWD (surprisingly athletic, unique active safety features, and great in-class value)
Chevrolet Sonic LTZ [$18,660] Who knew GM could produce a great small car? Over the past year they’ve demonstrated that plenty of people are happy to snap up a subcompact hatch built in the exotic country of Michigan. It’s affordable, fun in the corners, and the powerful turbo engine gets 40 mpg on the highway.
Personally, I highly suggest going with the turbo engine because of the low-end torque that give Sonic a frisky feel.
There aren’t many small hatchbacks on the market but check out the Honda Fit (amazing ability to look a size bigger on the inside and flexible seating), Kia Soul (funky design, very roomy, zippy performance, affordable for even hamsters) Hyundai Elantra GT (unique design, same attributes that make the sedan a winner).
2013 Chevrolet Traverse [$31,370 FWD] I’ve been lukewarm to Chevy’s full-sized crossover in the past but the refresh has changed my tune. The odd tail lamps have been changed, the grill is new, and most important, the interior is vastly improved. The upscale look is very welcomed.
Chevy engineers kept going with a more refined ride quality. It’s still spacious and comfortable for up to eight passengers too. For those looking for a more premium experience, graduate to platform mate 2013 Buick Enclave. It gets the same kind of improvements with a luxurious new cabin featuring ice blue light piping that wraps around to the rear doors.
Other SUVs and crossovers to consider are the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango (GC is for the few that really need extreme boulder-hopping with everyday utility for five, Durango works better for families with seating for seven), Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T (roomy five-seat crossover that’s quiet and distinctive), and Volvo XC60 (a near-luxury crossover that’s beautiful, nimble and full of advanced safety technology.
For the sensible, there’s always the Chrysler Town and Country minivan. The flexible Stow ‘n Go mid-row seats make it my van pick for active families.
Chevrolet Volt [$39,995 before tax credits] An on-board generator makes Volt the best choice for people who want an electric car as their only car. I’ve had this car a couple times for weeklong tests and find it a real charge to drive (pun intended) on so many different levels.
Sporty handling means Volt is actually fun to drive. The deep technology lets drivers save the battery range for situations where it’s more efficient. With all that’s been written about this vehicle I’m surprised to find people still say “I’d buy one but I need to go farther that 30 miles”. Wake up people, this car is as deep as it is accommodating.
For those who are looking to tread lightly on Mother earth, check out Toyota Prius (fuel efficient, affordable, with hatchback utility), Lexus CT200h (nicely appointed, more fun to drive than Prius, expressive hatchback design) Ford C-Max Hybrid (roomy, sculpted good looks, good quality interior materials. For a pure electric experience, the Nissan Leaf stands alone (until Tesla forks over a Model S press car).
Ford Focus [$16,995] Most will go for the standard four-door sedan or five-door hatch but there’s always the option of the tire shredding ST model. Regardless of which one you buy, Focus has loads of what was once known as “Euro feel”. It’s quickly being adapted by the Americans, especially Ford.
The best thing about Focus is it can be whatever kind of car you want. Buy a base model and it’s good solid transportation. Load it with options (there’s even a self-park system) and it’s darn close to a near-luxury car. It feels solid, gets Ford’s sculpted design language and returns decent MPG numbers.
Cross shop Volkswagen Golf/Jetta/GTI (hard to believe GTI didn’t make the list, the first time ever), Buick Verano (a guilty pleasure that combines compact size with premium amenities), Chevy Cruze (quiet and comfortable), Dodge Dart (elegant design, expressive interior, and balanced driving dynamics) and Hyundai Elantra (swoopy sheetmetal, premium features, value pricing if the dealer doesn’t add mandatory $2,000 floor mats).
2013 Honda Accord [$22,470] Unlike Car and Driver, I have never had the Accord on my “best of” list. That changes with generation nine. Honda has dispatched the awkward sheetmetal and given buyers a classically sober yet handsome Honda sedan. It’s three inches shorter but more spacious inside and that interior has been cleaned up with few buttons. Quieter on the road too. Finally.
While it is not the value/feature leader in class, it brings back the difficult-to-describe gravitas that made Accord a winner in the past. The ride is the perfect blend comfort and composure with a dash of sport thrown in. While fuel economy is good, look for both a hybrid and plug-in hybrid in 2013.
This is an unusually competitive segment and subject to individual tastes so I strongly recommend thorough research when buying in this class. Other strong contenders are Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata (for great value and expressive design), VW Passat (roomy and amazing TDI fuel economy), Ford Fusion (Euro driving dynamics and styling), Chevy Malibu (luxury car quiet and terrific interior design), and Nissan Altima (all-around pleaser).
2013 Mazda CX-5 [$21,790 FWD] There’s just something about Mazda’s compact crossover that sits right with me. The sculpted design is interesting but not outrageous and the size is just right. In a world that seems to lack common sense, this compact crossover nails it at every turn.
Like all Mazdas, the CX-5 is fun to drive (for a crossover anyways). The SKYACTIV suite of technologies offers decent fuel economy and performance plus you’ll drive more since the CX is comfortable enough to handle road trips. I know this first hand, shuttling four teen boys up to Vancouver, BC to compete in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Now that’s a vehicle test.
Also check out Ford Escape (great reputation and possible winner but since Ford did not have a press car, I have been unable to review it), Honda CR-V (often the most popular CUV on the road) and Buick Encore (premium amenities in a diminutive package, nothing else quite like it on the market).
2013 Porsche Boxter [$50,450] This car singlehandedly makes me want to become wealthy. There are more expensive Porsches but I’m not sure they’re better when it comes to real-world performance driving. The flat Boxer engine mounted low behind the two seats gives this roadster a magical driving dynamic. The chassis is stouter than the Brooklyn Bridge, the motor sounds better than insider trading advice.
A meticulously crafted cabin means you’ll always enjoy a great view, even if you’re still in the garage. The design is evolutionary with crisper shape and a spoiler that’s integrated seamlessly into the taillights. Go with the S model if you feel you need more power. Want a hardtop? Sister Cayman is on its way to Porsche stores soon.
For more top down driving with soul I highly recommend the Audi TTS (Audi style, all-wheel drive performance), Mazda MX-5 Miata (great value and alone in it’s price class), Ford Mustang GT (performance, value and seating for four) and Nissan 370Z (because the GT-R is way too expensive to meet the price cutoff).
Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ [$24,930 and $26,265] There’s really nothing like these twin rear-drive sport coupes. The low-profile Boxer engine keeps the center of gravity low, which raises the fun-to-drive quotient to high. Some might complain that 200 horsepower isn’t enough or that some additional low-end torque would be nice but really, on public roads, it’s tough to imagine having more fun than this.
Go ahead, argue all you want about which is better, the Scion or the Subie. If you can discern a clear difference between the two than by all means open up your own suspension tuning shop. I just know they’re both great fun and can be a perfectly reasonable daily driver.
Competition? Ummmmm, ahhhhhh… maybe the Mazda MX-5 Miata but it’s tough to pit a two-seat roadster against a 2+2 coupe. Let’s just say the Scionaru stands alone.